Following on from my previous post about relaxation as one of the four pillars of health, and based on Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s book ‘The 4 Pillar Plan’, this month’s post is about nutrition. Maintaining our health, fitness and wellbeing is particularly important during the current coronavirus crisis to provide us with the physical and psychological resilience that we need at this time.
There is so much conflicting (and often vehemently so) nutritional advice out there that it can be bewildering: high fat, low fat, high carb, low carb, high protein, low protein, paleo, ketogenic, vegetarian, vegan, raw, etc. etc. But what works for one person, may not work another, depending on biological make up, health, age and lifestyle. Some basic principles seem to apply across the board, however:
- Reduce sugar consumption
- Eat a rainbow of fresh fruit and vegetables each day
- Fast for at least 12 hours a day, ideally overnight
- Drink more water
- Avoid processed food.
The human brain seems to be hard wired to like sugar, most likely because it served an evolutionary purpose in encouraging us to gorge on sweet fruit in the summer and autumn to store up enough fat to see us through the leaner winter months. With no leaner months now, the fat just accumulates year on year if we consume excess sugars. Added to this, our taste buds become desensitised to sweetness by sugary foods to the point that naturally and more subtly sweet foods such as fruit don’t taste sweet compared with sweets, chocolates and ice cream.
Just as the taste buds can become desensitised to sugar, so too can the body to the insulin produced to control sugar levels in the blood, which can lead to poorly controlled blood sugar levels and type 2 diabetes. Chronically raised insulin levels have also been associated with obesity, high blood pressure, breast cancer and polycystic ovaries.
The trick to countering all that is to retrain your taste buds by cutting down on sugar in food and drink. To help achieve that, some of the actions that Rangan recommends are:
- Including protein in every meal to keep you feeling fuller for longer
- Planning ahead and keeping healthy snacks readily available to avoid turning to sugary foods as a quick fix to hunger, even when travelling
- Avoiding artificial sweeteners.
Sugary foods should be no more than an occasional treat, like having a dessert at the end of a meal out or a piece of cake at a birthday party or wedding, so no not a daily treat!
Eating the Rainbow
So how many portions of fresh fruit and vegetables should we be eating a day: five, seven, ten, more? The advice seems to change with the year. Confusing isn’t it? A simpler way to approach it, and one that I now enjoy using, is to focus instead on what colours those fruit and veg are and trying to eat a rainbow a day: red, orange, yellow, green and blue/purple. The reasoning behind that is that different coloured plant foods have different nutrients, so if you eat a variety of colours you are ensuring a varied intake of nutrients, so all your bases should be covered. For the reasons given above in the section on sugar, it is best to focus on veg rather than fruit.
A variety of plant foods is also important for maintaining a healthy gut microbiome, which you can read more about it in my blog post ‘The Microbiome of the Gut’.
I can recommend downloading the rainbow foods chart from Rangan’s website as a guide and to help you track your colour consumption.
It is not just what you eat that matters, but when you eat. Humans evolved to cope with periods of fasting when food was scarce. Hunter gatherer tribes to this day tend to fast for at least 12 hours overnight between eating at dusk and after dawn. Like with all the other nutritional advice, opinions vary on just how long to fast, but generally speaking most people can benefit from fasting for at least 12 hours a day. The main benefits of this are:
- The digestive system has a chance to cleanse itself
- The body goes into rest and repair mode
- It restricts calorific intake and so can help with weight reduction or the maintenance of a naturally healthy weight
- It helps set the circadian clock and so optimises the efficiency of all bodily functions, which I talk more about in my blog post ‘Why You Feel Like Hibernating in Winter’.
If you would like to try fasting, work out a 12-hour fasting window that works for you (e.g. finishing your evening meal at 7pm and not having breakfast until 7am). Within that fasting window have only water, or hot drinks without milk or sugar (e.g. herbal teas or black tea or coffee). Once you are comfortable with a 12-hour fast, you can experiment with a longer fasting window, perhaps increasing by an hour at a time. I find that 14 hours works well for me and my lifestyle.
We all seem to know how important it is to keep well hydrated, but putting that into practice can be tricky. Again, the advice on just how much that should be varies and there is as yet no conclusive scientific evidence to tell us. Undoubtedly it varies from individual to individual, so be guided by how you feel. Drowsiness, chronic low-grade headaches and constipation can all be signs of dehydration, so if you experience those symptoms, try drinking more water and see if it helps.
To help the body regulate hydration, it is best to drink little and often, so sipping throughout the day is better than glugging down half a litre at a time in. And it is best to avoid drinking anything more than a few sips for at least half an hour before, during or after a meal to avoid diluting the digestive enzymes.
It is also important to avoid drinking calories because they don’t give the body the cues of fullness that food does, and so you can end up consuming too many. Calorific drinks tend to be sugary too, so I refer you to my earlier comments on that.
Unprocess Your Diet
Rather than worrying about the dietary extremes mentioned above, Rangan recommends an unprocessed wholefood diet to regulate appetite, promote a healthy microbiome, support the immune system, avoid chronic inflammation and optimize health and wellbeing. As a guide, any food product that contains more than five ingredients is likely to be highly processed, unless of course you made it yourself from scratch.
You can learn more about these topics and the science behind them in The 4 Pillar Plan. In my next post I will talk about movement as one of the pillars of health. In the meantime, I do hope that you and yours stay safe and well.